With worsening violence taking place in Syria and options running out for both the regime and the west, Channel 4 News profiles Syria’s President Assad and his British-born wife.
One of four sons of the notoriously brutal former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar initially trained as an opthalmologist at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London before the death of his father in 2000.
The man who was not meant to be president of Syria is the younger brother of the man who was – his brother Bassel (Basil) al-Assad – who, after being groomed to take over from their father, died in a car crash in 1994 aged 33. Conservative MP Richard Shepherd, who went on a trip with parliamentary colleagues to Syria in 2009 and met Bashar al-Assad, told Channel 4 News he remembers thinking Assad did not appear to be in charge.
“We met with the president in his palace and the meeting we had was in a huge room with a seat at the end where Assad sat. He struck me as having a lisp. I’m not sure to what extent he was master of his own house,” said Mr Shepherd.
Assad has a reputation in the Arab world for not sticking to his word. Lord Risby
“He was more ‘coached’ in what he said by the Ba’athist party members who were also there. That’s the impression I got of him, that he was a rather weak figure surrounded by all of these powerful party figures.”
The fact that the heir apparent Basil al-Assad had pre-deceased Hafez meant that Bashar took over as head of state. The al-Assad family is from the minority Alawite sect which makes up only 12 per cent of the Syrian population, yet has been dominant in Syria since the Ba’ath party took over in the early 1960s.
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When his father died, Bashar was too young under the existing rules to take up the presidency so the country’s parliament, the Majlis, lowered the minimum age from 40 to 34 so he could assume control and at the last Syrian presidential election in 2007, Bashar won 97.6 per cent of the vote.
Initially outside commentators saw Assad as a change for the better after the brutally repressive reign of his father.
But the freedom of the so-called Damascus Spring of 2001 abruptly ended with the imprisonment of leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience.
Also on the 2009 trip, (which was organised by the British Syrian Society with the help of the Foreign Office,) was Lord Risby – then Richard Spring – and he recalls Assad as “very charming, very relaxed, very easy to speak to, speaks very good English”.
Asma was as far as I know on her way to Harvard Business School when she met Bashar – it was a love match. Lord Risby
Lord Risby told Channel 4 News he felt Assad was not a “natural politician” largely due to a perceived lack of judgement. He also said Assad differs in one notable way from his father in that he is keen to tell people what they want to hear but “has a reputation in the Arab world for not sticking to his word”.
This seemed to be borne out by Assad’s behaviour in the face of increasing violence at the beginning of the current unrest in Syria when he failed to carry out promised reforms, instead, continuing the violent suppression of opposition groups.
His government and the security services, which consist of several close family members including al-Assad’s younger brother and uncle, has been described as a “cabal” such is its tightly-knit impenetrable nature. Lord Risby said because of this it is hard to tell at any point who is in and who is out of favour.
The first lady of Syria actually grew up in Allan Way, Acton, suburban London, and comes from a Syrian Sunni family which originated in Homs, currently being razed by Syrian government forces. Her mother is a former diplomat and her father is a distinguished cardiologist who works in the NHS and has a private practice in Harley Street. He is also a founding director of the British Syrian Society.
Known at her west London comprehensive and private Marylebone sixth form as Emma, (contemporaries told Channel 4 News they cannot remember her,) Asma al-Assad graduated from King’s College London with a degree in computer science. She subsequently worked for the investment bank JP Morgan before marrying Bashar al-Assad.
MP Richard Shepherd, who met Asma in 2009, told Channel 4 News she had her own palace to receive guests, down the hill from her husband’s and that she was “demure and rather reticent about her time at King’s College”.
Lord Risby told Channel 4 News she is “whip smart” and was “as far as I know on her way to Harvard Business School when she met Bashar – it was a love match”.
Initially seen as the modern, liberal face of the Syrian regime, her star billing has fallen lately due to the brutal behaviour of her husband’s forces and government. She is now rarely seen in public, having initially held a high profile as a charity worker involved with groups including one on “active citizenship”.
Fashion magazine Vogue was forced to withdraw a profile of Asma and her family which called her a “rose in the desert” and a “thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement”.
There was outrage that such a portrait could appear which praised the Assad family as “wildly democratic” while the regime was busily slaughtering its own people.
Her appearances have been rare of late and there had been reports she had fled to London with her three children to escape the unrest, though in January she appeared at a pro-Assad rally in Damascus.
In February she also responded to an article in The Times which had asked what a woman educated in the liberal west would think of the slaughter being carried out by Bashar al-Assad‘s security forces.
In her response, emailed from her office, she stressed her support for her husband and said she is “equally involved in bridging gaps and encouraging dialogue” and that she “listens to and comforts the families of the victims of violence”.
Mrs al-Assad retains her British passport so if or when the regime does fall, she may be forced to return to West London.